Trained readers for SAT and ACT essays use holistic scoring. This practice of grading a piece of writing on its overall quality may be practical for scoring thousands of students. Generally, evaluators consider several elements when reading these short essays: focus, organization, support and conventions. However, using this scoring method as a teaching tool is ineffective, especially when attempting to teach middle and high school students how to improve their writing. The key to improving a talent or skill, whether athletic, musical, or academic, lies in practice. Therefore, directing students in specific tasks and providing immediate feedback are essential components of enhancing writing ability.
Teachers can introduce some of the strategies of “deliberate practice” for writing units. Admittedly, motivation is a key for improvement. A creative teacher can provide positive incentives that can enhance motivation for many of her students. Students must exert genuine effort, so rigor is involved. Another doctrine of this technique is to ”Take into account pre-existing knowledge.” For example, prior to assigning a descriptive essay, the teacher should review the topic of modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, and their permutations). Then students can apply these mechanics of grammar to their compositions. The teacher can set out a rubric that takes this learning into account. For instance: “To receive a satisfactory score, use at least 5 adjective prepositional phrases in the essay, and identify them in the margins.” Of course, the teacher must also explain that the award of good and excellent scores is predicated on performing ABOVE the minimum requirements.
The teacher needs to understand the importance of immediate feedback. Upon submission of the assignment, she should inform students that she will return the papers quickly (preferably the next class) with specific comments and suggestions for revision. Students can improve only when the instructor provides specific comments and suggestions. Just placing a grade with a few general comments is insufficient for instruction. Students need to learn HOW to improve. The teacher is the academic coach and should provide sufficient deliberate practice. For example, the type of comments that will assist a student in improving quality are specific and directed. “This essay has too many linking verbs. Count them and reduce that number by half, replacing the linking verbs with action verbs.”
Writing is a recursive project, so students must understand that their first submissions constitute a draft. Next comes another defining part of deliberate practice–PRACTICE. A student should expect to revise several times before submitting a final essay. So students must receive multiple opportunities to practice their writing skills, and teachers should be prompt and specific in their suggestions. Holistic scoring should remain in the domain of standardized testing, when students are demonstrating what they know rather than learning.